SOMETHING is happening in our river valleys, on fertile farmlands and along our shorelines. Record floods and tides make clear that something has changed.
“We’re sitting here on the pointy end of the pineapple express,” says Jay Gordon, a third-generation farmer on the Chehalis River and executive director of the Washington State Dairy Federation. “The climate-change theory that we’re going to see more rain and more floods — it’s not a theory. We’re living it.”
Gordon says farmers in his area are seeing a longer flood season with more frequent rains and higher high-water marks. Similarly, farmers in the Skagit River delta say it’s harder to keep their fields drained. And in places such as Stanwood and Orting, municipal leaders are making plans to cope with tides that wash over sea walls and rivers that overflow banks.
“These changes are real, they are consistent with anticipated changes due to climate, and they are affecting those of us who live in the Puget Sound region,” says Joshua Lawler, one of the lead authors for the U.S. National Climate Assessment released earlier this year. “Scientists, farmers and other landowners living near rivers and coasts know the facts — we are seeing more rain-on-snow events and higher seas. These are leading, in turn, to bigger and more frequent floods and larger storm surges on our shorelines.”
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To prevent the worst effects of this long-term trend, we must act now to adapt to and mitigate the impacts of climate change and the rising waters it brings.
Amazingly, nature itself can be used as a defense against these increasing threats. One of the most critical things we can do through public policy and smart investments is to give all that water someplace to go. We can protect farms, roads, towns and cities by protecting and restoring floodplains, marshes, wetlands and forests that can absorb or redirect water.
In Orting, for example, there are plans to set back levees on the Puyallup River to create more room for floodwaters to safely spread without damaging property or endangering people.
In Stanwood, local leaders are looking at the aging sea dikes that keep Skagit Bay from flooding across farm fields and into the city. In nearby Port Susan Bay, levees have been removed, allowing saltwater marshland to absorb the energy of waves before they slam into a new sea dike, helping to protect farmlands behind it.
King County’s Flood Hazard Management Plan, adopted in November, calls for setting back levees and reconnecting floodplains that have been disconnected from their rivers by past land use. These actions will increase the resilience of the river system, providing big benefits for people who live along those rivers, as well as for farmers and industry in the river valleys.
Our Legislature has approved $50 million for projects to restore floodplains in Puget Sound’s major rivers, reducing flood risk to people and property, providing salmon habitat and other community benefits, and laying the foundation for more resilient communities.
We are lucky. The natural landscapes of Western Washington were made for rain and coastal storms. The dunes, forests and marshes along our coastlines and rivers have been protecting human communities from erosion and flooding for thousands of years. Restoring and protecting our floodplains and coastal systems would help absorb some of the shocks that climate change will bring. But, given that the greatest impacts of climate change are yet to come, those systems need our help to bolster their ability to protect us.
We can support local and regional projects that strengthen our natural defenses by restoring and protecting the functioning habitats of our rivers and coasts. Working floodplains and coastal systems are our best protection against climate-driven flooding, but they can only help us if we invest in them.
Michael S. Stevens is state director for The Nature Conservancy in Washington.
Mary Ruckelshaus is managing director of The Natural Capital Project and board chairwoman for The Nature Conservancy in Washington.